Happy Travel Tuesday from the wilds of Wyoming! Okay, not really “the wilds” per se, but a long way from my desert. It’s also much colder than my desert – finally a place that feels like winter! As I mentioned last week, I didn’t know much about the myths and legends surrounding Glastonbury when I went in search of the Tor. I just knew it was supposed to be a really cool place with an “energetic vibe.” So I was very pleasantly surprised to find such a rich history behind the town and its famous hill.
Archaeological evidence shows that Glastonbury has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The town used to be an island surrounded by a shallow sea. Glastonbury was a place of trade, but the Tor always set the town apart. Through the years there have been any number of rituals, beliefs, and legends surrounding the Tor, several of which claim that it as a gateway between the heavens and the underworld. With the rise of Christianity, the pagan beliefs took on a more Christian tone and Glastonbury Abbey was erected, swiftly becoming a popular pilgrimage stop.
If you research Glastonbury, you will find an overwhelming number of hypothesis and stories, myths and legends. However, two of the most popular figures are Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur.
Joseph of Arimathea
Biblically speaking, Joseph of Arimathea was the one to whom Jesus’ body was released after the crucifixion. According to local legend, Joseph was also Jesus’ uncle and the two visited Glastonbury to trade goods. When Jesus died, Joseph fled to Britain, bringing with him the Holy Grail. [Side note: In this case, the Holy Grail was a cup. Supposedly the one Jesus used at the Last Supper and which may have also contained drops of his blood.]
Joseph was granted land at Glastonbury by a local King. As the story goes, upon his arrival, Joseph struck his thorn staff into the earth whereupon it took root and burst into bloom. A cutting from that first thorn tree was later planted at Glastonbury Abbey where it continued to bloom every year at Christmas. In fact, there is a thorn tree at the Abbey, of a variety native to the Holy Lands, which does indeed bloom around Christmas each year.
As for the Holy Grail, there are many theories. One theory suggests that Joseph buried he cup at the base of the Tor, whereupon a spring of blood gushed forth from the ground. In fact, there is a well at the base of the Tor called Chalice Well. The water is tinged red from the heavy iron content. Bottles of this water can be purchased as a token of your pilgrimage and as a good luck charm. (smile) Another legend indicates that Joseph was buried with the Grail in a secret grave. The search for the Grail continues even today.
Some say that Joseph also founded the first church in England at Glastonbury. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest a very early Christian church in the area. Glastonbury Abbey was first built around existing monastic structures and then rebuilt following a devastating fire. The Abbey became one of the richest in England thanks to its popularity as a pilgrimage destination. Unfortunately, Glastonbury Abbey fell victim during the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII and today remains in ruins.
Legend has it that the nearby hill fort at South Cadbury was the location for Camelot. In fact, archaeological records do suggest that the area was in use during the early 6th century, which is the likeliest era for the real Arthur. The Tor has been linked to the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur was formed, and where Arthur was buried after his death.
In the late 12th century, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had found the grave of Arthur and Guinevere, his queen. According to the monks, a stone inscribed “Here lies Arthur, king,” was found during an excavation near the Abbey. Beneath the stone they found the bones of a large man and the smaller skeleton of a woman. The remains were reburied in the grounds of the Abbey, adding increased popularity to the pilgrimage destination.